Continuing to think about research labs: 14 references

17.04, Monday 15 Mar 2021

Following my thought experiment about the Orthogonal Technology Lab back in January, I have had a ton of conversations with people generously sharing their perspectives.

So, here’s a collection of some contemporary research labs, as a way of thinking through which models I personally find most interesting. (I haven’t spoken with most of these, but they’ve come up in conversation. Apologies if anyone feels I have miscategorised their lab. I’m using categories only to aid my thinking.)


As a recap, the goal of my imaginary lab is to

  • shift the discourse of what technology is capable of, e.g. finding business models for smart gadgets that don’t rely on collecting data or subscriptions; discovering new routes to interoperability for social platforms
  • don’t invent technology. Re-exploring old tech, and take a systems-thinking approach – create product prototypes, but also protocol drafts, Excel fictions, and so on
  • be independent and public yet commercial. The research programs should be visible and self-determined, but corporate involvement is important not just for $$$ but for amplification and access to ideas.

As outputs to this process, new technology and new ventures may be inspired, and that’s the desire but not the purpose.

And I was trying to figure out the model. That was one of my questions last time.


Independent research labs

Other Internet is an applied research organization in emerging technology.

I keep coming back and looking at this model. It appears to be open, self-directed research to explore a variety of areas (the website is a series of public strategy/insight decks), and then that leads into private commercial collaborations.

(Though if I were to clone and adapt this model, I would need to figure out for myself what I wanted next stage in the research pipeline to be, and how to move people towards that.)

Ethical Futures Lab aims to generate conversations among experts across disciplines [and] to build tangible examples of ethical futures.

Right now it’s a great biweekly newsletter, which I think is a smart approach: explore and build an audience, ahead of deeper engagements. So maybe it’s a baby Other Internet?

Unusual scientific institutes

Qualia Research Institute is a nonprofit research group studying consciousness.

QRI appears to have the scaffolding of a research institute-shaped operation, some early research, and an advisory board of big names. It is currently pre-funding. It’s the “go big or go home” model and there’s a lot to be said for that.

Sci-Fi Economics Lab: we nurture and support new, radical ways to think about the economy and economic policy.

It’s a place to bring unusual projects into the world – like Witness, which is a collaborative, speculative world building project, documented on its own Wikipedia. See for example, The History of Witness. The lab is also a venue for discussion and conferences, so they’re definitely prioritising influence.

This strikes me as simultaneously the most bonkers result of grant funding culture and also a lab in its purest form: there is a barely discernible but real phenomenon on the lab bench, and a group of people have convened to figure out what it is.

Dynamicland. Our mission is to incubate a humane dynamic medium.

The most fully-fledged public, independent, consumer technology research lab that I’m aware of. It’s a grand experiment, and a physical environment, aiming to discover the next paradigm of computing. I mean, it’s amazing. But I suspect that nobody except the founders (Bret Victor! Alan Kay!!) could have established it.

Memberships

IDEO’s CoLab connects organizations to shape technology’s impact on the world. Together, we design the future.

CoLab runs a number of different time-limited research programmes (e.g. Mixed Reality or Circular Economy) and corporates pay to set challenges to the research, take part in the collaborations, and have first dibs on the output. There is also a venture building element.

Fast Forward Labs, owned by Cloudera since 2017, is an applied machine learning research group.

From what I understand, companies would subscribe to quarterly research reports about opportunities in machine learning, plus illustrative prototypes. Here’s the blog and here are the experiments. It appears to continue in a research-led and member-value-add fashion for Cloudera and its clients.

Is this model still viable or did it only fly because true understanding of machine learning was, back then, very rare?

Agency style

oio studio is (according to the Twitter bio): A creative studio designing future products and interaction.

When agencies are able to maintain their own culture, beyond client engagements, they’re able to maintain a research-like vibe. I don’t know these folks, but the public portfolio is one of wildly playful and imaginative experimental products, and that will buy them space to continue to explore the same territories even when working with clients, and permission to carry the ideas out into the world again.

For me, this isn’t quite what I mean by a research lab, but there’s a similarly of spirit and lot to learn from.

Startup studios

I’m not including startup studios in my list. I think that if the goal is to spin out startups, either for yourself or for corporate partners, then

  • the necessary “lean startup” approach pushes towards commercial viability too early, which is antithetical to the approach of orthogonal research; and
  • with startups, you tend to not show your working, which makes it harder to shift the public discourse (unless the startup is wildly successful).

However…

One exception, as it’s come up many times, and the model is intriguing:

Ink & Switch. We are an industrial research lab working on digital tools for creativity and productivity.

From the March 2015 pitch deck (pdf), this is a lab with a high cadence of rapid research and prototyping projects, each of which are written up publicly and in detail. For example this exploration in sketching ideas on tablets was, based on the response to the published write-up, spun out as the startup Muse.

(I’m not including “venture building as a service” companies here either. What I’m focusing on is where direction precedes funding, and the IP isn’t entirely owned by the client.)

Corporate

SPACE10 is proudly supported by and entirely dedicated to IKEA - working as an independent research and design lab.

As a lab, it’s highly collaborative, and appears to operate by making precise interventions within broad themes. For example the Everyday Experiments research programme (which is about technology in the home) includes this wonderful collaboration: Light Gestures. As a research study into how to interact with smart lights, it’s thoughtful (great breakdown of the interaction) but accessible (lots of animated GIFs!). When you have enough of these experiments to pepper the theme, you’re really getting somewhere. There are also public research reports and a fellowship programme.

BBC R&D and specifically the Internet Research and Future Services (IRFS) team.

There’s something powerful about researching and prototyping new ways to do storytelling in an organisation which is always looking for new ways to tell stories.

Artistic

School of Machines. We develop unique programs to teach the latest technologies while simultaneously questioning their usage, the world around us, and ourselves.

I find this model fascinating. It’s primarily a teaching organisation, to enable artists with new tools and new perspectives, but the projects are provocative.

Freeport. An independent study and production program led by artists.

Each “lab” has a duration, a theme, and an artistic lead, of sorts, but is mainly a place to either expand your existing work and research, or test new ground.


Setting out to encounter new problems

Generally I’ve not been looking back in time because the context around R&D has changed so much. But I do think a lot about the historic artist in residence programmes at both Bell Labs and Xerox PARC. These paired artists (animators, poets) with engineers and found new ways to see the world, and new applications of technology.

To read more about that, see my heavily-linked post about Art + Tech (2015). (I’ve also given that post as a talk a few times, always internally at companies. There are a lot of pictures and not many conclusions so it’s a good lunchtime sort of thing. Get in touch if you’d be interested.)

I read a tweet the other day (I wish I could find it) which asked why it was CERN that came up with the web, and DARPA the internet.

Both of these places, suggested the tweet, came up against problems that nobody else had encountered yet.

So I think that’s one of the jobs of a lab, and it’s why working with artists works, and why you need both space for orthogonal research but also a way to engage with corporates or audiences with their own challenges: your goal is put yourself in a position where you face new challenges, and then report back.


If forced to choose…

No conclusions. Lots to learn from the above.

On the corporate side, SPACE10 is impressive. Though my own preference would be for something smaller and more opinionated.

IDEO’s CoLab has managed to pull off corporate collaboration, and that’s amazing. They have the advantage of being able to cross-sell, and they’re also able to bring their valuable training capabilities. What if an agency or a design consultancy were a partner in a lab?

I think the Other Internet model is fascinating. And the membership model of Fast Forward Labs. I wonder about how to blend the two, and whether I could make the economics work.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.

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